There is no more an iconic sight than a herd of ponies grazing together, with stunning Dartmoor landscape as backdrop. So much so, when Dartmoor was designated a National Park in 1951, the image of the pony was selected to be the logo for the park.
Not only are these ponies an integral part of the moorland landscape, they are part of the area’s heritage having been on Dartmoor for centuries. Hoof prints discovered during an archaeological dig were found to be 3,500 years old. Due to their strength and sure-footedness, the ponies have been used for many purposes over the years: riding and pulling carts, as pit ponies, shepherding, and taking people or goods to market; or, carrying the postman delivering mail or the prison guards as they escorted prisoners at Dartmoor prison. Today, their role is largely environmental conservation through grazing the moor, which helps to maintain a variety of habitats and support wildlife.
These hardy ponies thrive on Dartmoor despite the harsh weather and poor vegetation. They are smaller than regular horses, and, let’s face it they are fluffy and adorable. It would seem every tourist visitor to Dartmoor would agree and if I had a pound coin for the number of times I’ve had to swerve the car to avoid a tourist stopped on a blind bend as they take a photo of one of these ponies, well I’d be rich.
When two ponies laid claim to the fields outside our house, we were thrilled to see them. We would watch them as they ran freely by the river, grazed in the meadow, and came up close to our stone walls to watch us in the garden or say hello to Pie and Polly, the horses which graze in our paddocks. On occasion, they would chase the grazing sheep around them: harmless turf wars.
Because of their calm temperament…WAIT! Stop the press and hold your horses!
Just the other day our neighbour said she had witnessed one of the ponies taking a lamb and throwing it up in the air the way a cat might play with a mouse it has recently captured. I couldn’t believe it, let alone imagine the scene. The Dartmoor ponies are mellow. They are known for their placid nature. You can walk up to them and they don’t startle. I wouldn’t recommend feeding them (it’s against the law anyway) as they might bite or kick, but they are generally mild mannered.
More recently, while working in the garden, a man fishing in the river yelled up to us, “There is a dead sheep in the river.” Roger went to investigate and found a dead ewe mid river with a lot of fresh blood on her face. The cause of death remains unknown, but we couldn’t help but wonder about the ponies. They had been prancing and running near the river just moments before. The fisherman said the sheep hadn’t been in the river when he passed by a few hours earlier. Could one of the ponies have had a hoof in this situation? As possibilities raced through our minds, the immediate concern was the now-motherless-baying lamb nearby, the one which Roger saw being born in the fields not more than a week before. After a phone call, the local farmer came and gathered the dead ewe and took the lamb back to bottle feed it. It was a sad moment, but a part of the nature of things. Sheep die, lambs become orphans. You hope you discover them in time to avoid their deaths too.
So, imagine our surprise when Roger saw one of the ponies prancing and bucking along the same stretch of river. Quickly, out came the binoculars! Clearly this pony, one of the pair we had been lovingly watching for weeks, was harassing another sheep. As we headed out to address the situation, people walking past stopped us to let us know what they were witnessing. In an instant, Roger ran across the garden, sprang over the fence and raced toward the ponies in hopes of stopping the brutality. Our neighbour who was visiting quickly followed to help and I grabbed the phone to call the farmer. Something crazy was going on!
When I arrived on the scene, the horses were gone and a single, very stressed sheep was in the river panting. The three of us surrounded the sheep and as it darted, our neighbour swiftly grabbed her. We held her still, calmed her, and noticed a huge gash along her rear leg. The farmer arrived a few minutes later and he took her back to his farm to tend to her wounds.
We’ve asked a number of people about this behaviour and no one has witnessed anything like it. Since these events, someone, likely from the Dartmoor Hill Pony Association, an animal conservation group, has come along and moved the ponies higher up onto the moors. Perhaps the two needed more of their herd to keep them from terrorizing sheep. I’ll miss seeing these two ponies outside, and while I don’t like to see the sheep chased, I didn’t mind how effective the ponies were at keeping the sheep from jumping our walls and getting into our paddocks.
With our de facto sentries gone, we really now do need to finish repairing that bit of wall.